North Sea Jazz, Rotterdam, Netherlands

For its 43rd edition, the festival still manages to attract the big stars, although many of the golden oldies of the jazz world are no longer around. Rupert Parker spends 3 days enjoying the music.

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In the past, I used to fly to Rotterdam but there’s something more relaxing about getting the train to a music festival. Eurostar takes just over three hours from London and from the station it’s a short metro ride to the North Sea Jazz festival site. If you have visions of wellies and mud, forget it, as it takes place indoors inside a labyrinth-like exhibition centre. The floors are carpeted, there are chairs and you only have to stand for three of its twelve stages.

The festival began nearby in The Hague in 1976 but moved here in 2012 and is now on its 43rd edition. Add to that impeccable organisation, so everything starts on time, great sound and a wide range of food and you have the recipe for a perfect three days. The good folks of Rotterdam thoughtfully run the metro until the last act has finished and the festival is only a few stops from the centre of town.

In spite of the name, the music is not limited to jazz. This year the recipe is the same as ever – big stars to bring in the punters, including Gladys Knight, Macy Grey and even Bert Bacharach, and the best bands from across the whole jazz spectrum. Many of my favourites are no longer around, so I find myself exploring the different stages and hearing new people.

What’s great is that many of the venues offer an intimate experience where you get to see the gestures and expressions of the musicians. I particularly enjoy the Belgian/American trio MixMonk who as you might guess play a mixture of Monk compositions and originals. They’re in one of the smallest rooms and drummer Joey Baron plays soft and sensitive for this perfect brand of chamber jazz.

Another veteran drummer is Billy Hart who appears with the Joey DeFrancesco Trio. DeFrancesco is equally at home on organ and trumpet and his brand of soul jazz never fails to deliver. Joshua Redman, a regular at the festival, has a quintet inspired by Ornette Coleman’s Old and New Dreams, There’s lots of fire here and they all appear to be enjoying themselves, unlike some other bands.

The artist in residence is pianist Robert Glasper who plays everything from hip-hop to bebop and during the weekend he does three sets. I miss the one with rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) but enjoy him in a trio setting which includes a cover of Prince’s Sign o’ the Times as well as a number of original tunes.

South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, now 84, is here with his band Ekaya, and he leads them through a comprehensive list of his back catalogue. It’s deep heartfelt music, coming from the dark apartheid years, and the audience feels the emotion.

Also from Africa, is Singer Dobet Gnahoré, raised in the Ivory Coast, but now living in France. She’s a punk bundle of black leather, feathers and cowrie shells, delivering a fiery afro-pop on the festival’s only outdoor stage. Of course she gets everyone up dancing.

Bobby McFerrin, at the centre of his vocal quintet, thrills with his display of vocalese although these days, he tends to let the others do the heavy lifting. Another veteran is saxophonist Gary Bartz and he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his Another Earth album by recreating it with Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax and Charles Tolliver on trumpet.

Bert Bacharach is the senior, at a shaky 93, and conducts his capable orchestra from the piano through a set of his greatest hits. There are so many that even if you don’t know the words, you find yourself humming along. It could be cheesy but it’s astounding how many songs he’s responsible for.

Two more divas, Macey Gray and Anita Baker, are also great crowd-pleasers, with Baker particularly poignant as she’s on her farewell tour. Macy Gray simply belts out the tunes, even calling her mother in the middle of her set to tell her how great the Rotterdam audience is.

And there’s still time for squawking and screeching as John Zorn assembles various line ups to play a marathon 4 hour session of his compositions. Henry Threadgill’s Zooid experiments with tuba and cello whilst trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire blends hip hop, classical, pop and social issues to make a powerful musical statement.

Tenor saxophonist Houston Person, backed by Hammond organ, digs deep into the soul groove, with his wonderful tone. Another survivor is Gladys Knight, in surprisingly good voice, and she can’t leave without delivering Midnight Train to Georgia. I’m still humming it as I take the midnight metro to Rotterdam Central.


The next North Sea Jazz Festival will take place on 10-12 July 2020.

Eurostar has a direct service to Rotterdam from London.

The nhow Rotterdam makes a comfortable base, three metro stops from the festival site.

Rotterdam Info has information about the city.

Holland has information about the country.